The end of the Baratheon rivalry drives Catelyn to flee and Littlefinger to act. At King’s Landing, Tyrion’s source alerts him to Joffrey’s flawed defense plan and a mysterious secret weapon. Theon sails to the Stony Shore to prove he’s worthy to be called Ironborn. In Harrenhal, Arya receives a promise from Jaqen H’ghar, one of three prisoners she saved from the Gold Cloaks. The Night’s Watch arrive at the Fist of the First Men, an ancient fortress where they hope to stem the advance of the wildling army.
“The Ghost of Harrenhal” proved a difficult episode to review, in some ways, because our initial reaction to seeing it was strongly influenced by what can only be called disappointment, disappointment wholly due to the first two scenes of the episodes and the way they didn’t live up to my hopes or expectations. In one case, certainly, my hopes were really entirely those of a fan of the novels first and foremost… but in the other, and for many the most important scene, it’s the opening with Renly which may well fall flat. On re-watching, now being able to just absorb the disappointment and not let it color everything that comes after, the episode is about as strong as Benioff’s and Weiss’s prior episodes.
It sees the return of Benioff and Weiss to writing an episode, as I’ve said, and as seems to be the case this season, they seem to be taking the episodes that are the most heavily packed with a maximal number of distinct story lines, which means they’re taking the toughest episodes to write for themselves. Perhaps it’s merely coincidence, but they certainly did Bryan Cogman and Vanessa Taylor (writers of episodes 3 and 4, respectively) a favor. The many storylines mean that there is, generally, a sense that many of the scenes don’t quite fall into a state of completion, as if there’s no natural stopping off point for many of these characters at this particular juncture. For the most part, many of the individual scenes are perfectly sound, and in some cases quite strong—the introduction of Hallyne (played by the remarkable Roy Dotrice, who fans of the audiobooks may well recognize) is well done, the introduction of Qhorin Halfhand is engaging, and the absolute finest moment in the episode features a remarkable exchange between Arya and Tywin—but there’s a not a strong narrative or thematic thread connecting them together. This only makes sense, of course, given that we’re square in the middle of the ten episode season.
What is it about the opening that deflated my hopes so much that it made the first viewing difficult to enjoy as much as I wanted? After the brilliant, creep birth of the shadow, I think expectations would be very high at something to fully match that when we finally see the shadow assassin (or shadow baby, as we call it on the forum) carry out its mission. The way Martin describes it in the novel certainly draws on his talent for writing horror, and in particular there’s something terrifying about a living shadow hiding on the wall, its silhouette mistaken for Renly’s own shadow until it’s shadow blade comes it and cuts the king’s throat. Instead, the first glimpse of the shadow is as a very Lost Monster-esque formless cloud flowing across the ground… and then what I can only call mediocre direction choices (by David Petrarca, who elsewhere is anything but mediocre) rather ruin the effect of it all.
Reaction shots from Brienne and Catelyn framing the stabbing and death of Renly feels very rote and basic. I can’t help but wonder if that initially the production had planned to do something more like what’s in the novel, which would very possibly have been able to live up to the impossible standard of last episode’s finale… but the delays caused by Hurricane Irene caused them to have too little time. After all, notice how distinct Renly’s shadow is, very much as if they had been planning to CGI the shadow initially hiding itself on the wall as well? And while the fight between Brienne and the guards looks great, there was a little pang at the fact that she killed both men—in the novels, it’s not until A Feast for Crows that she actually kills her first man.
In any case, that was the initial moment of disappointment. But it was the following scene which really made that disappointment stick. It wasn’t anything to do with the acting, or the concept of the scene, really. Margaery Tyrell’s character has been significantly changed, and that’s particularly confirmed in this novel as she declares her true ambitions, but it’s fine and understandable as such things go. What isn’t so obviously understandable is the failure of the writers to make use of a detail that is only mentioned in the background of the story and never shown, but which seemed ripe for adding drama and emotional texture to the story. The detail? Loras Tyrell’s reaction to Renly’s killing. In the novel, we learn that Loras’s grief drives him into a rage, and he kills two of his sworn brothers—Ser Emmon Cuy and Ser Robar Royce—as he blames them for letting Renly be killed. It’s a bloody act, a terrible act that will haunt him in later days, but it’s the kind of rage and action that comes straight from the ancient epics, something out of Homer where the “rage of Achilles” is sparked in part by the death of Patroclous, his companion (and, probably, lover).
But… nothing. Loras Tyrell looks at Renly with obvious grief, but his emotions are not overpowering him, and there’s no sign of bodies or blood to It’s true that Renly’s guard are anonymous in the show, compared to characters such as Robar Royce (first mentioned, if you readers recall, in the Hand’s tourney in A Game of Thrones) who are at least a little developed. But would it have been difficult to show a couple of hesitant guards just outside the tent deciding to shout for help rather than running in… and then seeing Loras spattered with blood as he kneels by Renly’s body, numb now with grief, and perhaps a brief mention of his having killed those who stood by? That would have been perfect. And, moreover, they go a step further and have Loras disbelieve that Brienne was involved, the exact opposite of the case in the novels. Why? I can’t fathom a reason. Changes that have reasons and seem sensible are always to be accepted… but why change such a minor detail? Especially when we know from Finn Jones that his audition scene featured Ser Loras accusing Brienne of Renly’s murder! It’s strange that they changed it so completely.
Last but not least, we come to Qarth, the most changed storyline of all in some ways, the one least recognizable from the novel. The strange, exotic, high civilization of Qarth could have been conveyed in so many better ways than a garden party, a middle-of-the-road sort of thing that loses the impact of how wondrous the place is supposed to seem after the sojourn in the desert. Travelers from far-flung areas bringing gifts of all kind—from jewels to gold to strange spices and more—to get a glimpse of her dragons, each more outlandish than the one before, a constant series of wonders… well, that could have conveyed it. A garden party is the sort of thing one might end up watching on a Real Housewives reality program. Pyat Pree’s bit of conjuring was, of course, a nice recognition that there’s genuine magic going on—hard to forget about it after the shadow!—and Quaithe’s appearance is brief but interesting, but something simply seemed “off”. The changes to Xaro—now confirmed by actor Nonso Anozie to be heterosexual, unlike the character in the novel—merely seem to highlight how flimsy the show’s vision of this segment is: his story sounds as if it’s been copped from Illyrio, with the numbers filed off. Impoverished beginnings? Checks. Self-made man? Check. Lost the love of his life? Check. Wanting to profit from Daenerys? Check.
Perhaps Qarth is part of the story that can grow on viewers familiar with the fairy tale-tinged wonder of the city Martin described, and it merely takes time to get a sense of where the story is going there. But at the moment, it feels as if all the efforts to “improve” on Qarth are falling flat. Which is a shame, when you’ve talented actors on hand—Anozie, of course, and Iain Glen and Emilia Clarke have a great scene together near the end of the episode—but that’s how it stands for me at the moment. I believe the writers shied away from the wrong elements of Daenerys’s story, and by trying to pad it out have instead diminished it. We’ll see if matters improve…
Combined, the let down of the opening, the missed opportunity of the following scene, and the lifelessness of the Qarth scenes (except, I should hasten to add, the very cute Drogon—amazing, amazing special effects and sound design) made it difficult to get into the episode on that first viewing. And the decision to turn the aftermath of last episode’s harrowing scene between Joffrey, Ros, and Daisy into a throw-away remark from Bronn seemed didn’t help matters, as it does rather play into the notion that the prostitutes are there merely to be abused rather than to be, however briefly, characters in their own right. But on the second one finds more to appreciate. This episode featured excellent performances from a number of actors, including Alfie Allen who’s been giving the best turn of the Winterfell lads this season, but one that deserves special consideration this time out is Maisie Williams, whose Arya Stark is absolutely stunning when she’s there during the Lannister council… and is asked by Tywin to explain what the northmen say of Robb Stark. The final lines are bone-chilling because of how Maisie conveys—simply through her dead-eyed, fixed gaze—that she means Tywin could die too… and Charles Dance, that veteran of stage and screen, gives it back with a look that seems to mingle amusement, effrontery, and perhaps even a bit of respect for her boldness.
It’s an exhilarating scene, one of the best moments of dialog we’ve had yet in the show. It’s doubtless not a coincidence that the scene immediately following features Arya now receiving the gift of three lives from Jaqen H’ghar, in a scene that’s almost word for word from the novel. At the same time, though, however much one can appreciate that scene, Harrenhal seems to lose something of its horror and terror when Arya is the cup-bearer rather than abused scullion. The disappearance of the Bloody Mummers certainly does not help the general sense of foulness and danger, and instead Harrenhal seems like a dank, unpleasant, but otherwise acceptable place to be. And Arya’s identity seems rather fixed, doesn’t it? In the novel, Arya goes by many names in the course of her young life, an important aspect of her character that foreshadows things to come. It’s another one of those grace notes, those character details, that seems to get lost as the show progresses.
In final summation, this episode began as something of a let down, but it does improve if you can get that frustration and disappointment not affect the rest of how you perceive the story. It could have been a truly great episode, especially if that first scene had lived up to the promise of last episode’s finale and Qarth had felt more like a genuinely strange place, but as it stands it’s a reasonably sturdy entry into the second season. Hopefully the episodes to come now begin to kick things into gear as we rush towards “Blackwater” and “Valar Morghulis”.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings: Catelyn IV, Tyrion VIII, Davos II with elements of Davos III, Tyrion V, Arya VII, Jon IV, elements of Daenerys II, Catelyn V, Bran V, and Jon V.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter: